Friday, March 30, 2007

Some Words I Love

In my last entry I used the word "bovine" (coming from a cow, but it also means like a cow). You have probably heard this word, and you've certainly heard of canine (dog-like) and feline (cat-like), but do you know all these similar words?

equine (horse-like)
vulpine (fox-like)
ursine (bear-like)
asinine (donkey-like)
leonine (lion-like)
porcine (pig-like)
serpentine (snake-like)
piscine (fish-like)
lupine (wolf-like)
ovine (meaning sheep-like, not meaning egg-like as you might expect)

There are a lot more, but they are uncommonly used. Anserine is goose-like; aquiline (almost always used to refer to a nose) means eagle-like, specifically like the hooked beak; caprine mean goat-like, while hircine means "smells like a goat"; corvine means crow-like; murine means mouse- or rat-like, as in "a murine plague." There are more, but they are used pretty rarely.

You probably know what an aviary is, but how about an apiary? (And the word avian, as opposed to apian). What about hirsute? And don't get me started on collective nouns!

UPDATE: the Doctor Who episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp" just supplied me with another word: "vespiform." It was apparently a fairly obscure word before it became the name of a fictional alien race. It means, naturally, "wasp-shaped."

On On Bullshit

A five-star review as submitted to Amazon, with minor editing, for Harry G. Frankfurt's book On Bullshit

First, let's clarify what this book actually is. It is a very small book, containing one short essay. The binding is dignified and elegant, in somewhat ironic contrast to the title. It is a short work of philosophical inquiry. It is not terribly dense or dry; you will not need an extensive background in philosophy to understand it, although you will enjoy it more if you have experience reading and unpacking the meaning behind essays. Critical thinking is required. It is not a comedy piece, although it is darkly humorous, but the humor will come from you, as you interpret the essay and realize the implications of what Frankfurt is telling you. Of particular value is the observation that the producer of said manure product is not lying in the usual sense, but producing something orthogonal to either truth or lies; it is produced only to the self-aggrandizement or gratification of the producer, be the producer bovine or human.

As I'm interest in politics and the criticism thereof, I immediately realized that Frankfurt's essay is extremely applicable to politics, and more particularly to the politics of the latter quarter of the 20th century through the present, and even more particularly to the steaming heaps of useless words that come from the white house. In particular, I found myself immediately concluding that Reagan, who has somehow become an icon for all that was allegedly good about conservative politics, achieved his mythic status not because of his brilliant leadership or policies -- are you kidding? -- but because of the quality of the eponymous bovine bowel matter he so copiously generated; his could even be called gold-plated.

He was widely admired for this. Which leads me to consider the current occupant of the White House. Republicans and conservatives of all stripes are turning against the Resident, because he and Cheney are actually very poor at generating bovine fecal matter; the quality is poor. It is lumpy and irregular, and watery, a thin gruel indeed, too free of nutrition to sustain the cult of personality that buoyed Reagan. Bush can't issue a single midirecting gold-plated turd without a smirk, and Cheney can't do so without a snarl. Both appear constipated. Both could have benefited enormously either from active-duty military service, which would have immersed them in B.S., or a career in B-movies. We can only hope that our next president is either truthful, or maintains a high-fiber diet.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Paul's Nearly Complete Guide to Discworld, Part Three

This is the third and final part of my guide.

The Discworld Books in chronological order by release, with my ratings, and an asterisk for the ones I recommend:
  1. The Color of Magic
  2. The Light Fantastic
  3. Sourcery
  4. Mort *
  5. Equal Rites
  6. Wyrd Sisters *
  7. Pyramids
  8. Guards! Guards! *
  9. Eric
  10. Moving Pictures
  11. Reaper Man
  12. Witches Abroad *
  13. Small Gods *
  14. Lords and Ladies
  15. Men at Arms
  16. Soul Music
  17. Feet of Clay *
  18. Interesting Times * (the best Rincewind book, so you should read at least one)
  19. Maskerade *
  20. Hogfather
  21. Jingo *
  22. The Last Continent
  23. Carpe Jugulum *
  24. The Fifth Elephant *
  25. The Truth *
  26. Thief of Time *
  27. Night Watch
  28. Monstrous Regiment
  29. Going Postal*
  30. Thud*
  31. Making Money
  32. Unseen Academicals
The City Watch sequence:
  • Guards! Guards!
  • Men at Arms
  • Feet of Clay
  • Jingo
  • The Fifth Elephant
  • Night Watch
  • Thud
The Witches sequence:
  • Equal Rites
  • Wyrd Sisters
  • Witches Abroad
  • Maskerade
  • Lords and Ladies
  • Carpe Jugulum
The Death sequence:
  • Mort
  • Reaper Man
  • Soul Music
  • Hogfather
  • Thief of Time
The Rincewind sequence:
  • The Color of Magic
  • The Light Fantastic
  • Sourcery
  • Eric
  • Interesting Times
  • The Last Continent
  • Unseen Academicals
Miscellaneous
  • Pyramids
  • Moving Pictures
  • Small Gods
  • The Truth
  • Monstrous Regiment
  • Going Postal
  • Making Money (the story is a sequel to Going Postal)
Discworld Novels in Ratings Order:

The best (5/5):
  • The Truth (the best standalone)
  • Thief of Time (single best Discworld novel, but not a good introduction to the series)
  • Thud (first read the other City Watch books in order, or at least the top few of them)
The good (4/5):
  • Mort
  • Wyrd Sisters
  • Guards! Guards!
  • Witches Abroad
  • Small Gods
  • Feet of Clay
  • Interesting Times
  • Maskerade
  • Jingo
  • Carpe Jugulum
  • The Fifth Elephant
  • Going Postal
  • Making Money
  • Unseen Academicals
Dig deeper if you find yourself becoming a dedicated fan (3/5):
  • The Light Fantastic
  • Equal Rites
  • Eric
  • Moving Pictures
  • Reaper Man
  • Lords and Ladies
  • Men at Arms
  • Soul Music
  • Night Watch
  • Monstrous Regiment
The Bottom of the Barrel (2 or fewer stars)
  • The Colour of Magic
  • Sourcery
  • Pyramids
  • Hogfather
  • The Last Continent

Paul's Nearly Complete Guide to Discworld, Part Two

Reviews of Each Discworld Novel

Note: may contain spoilers. I have tried to leave out any big secrets, but you may find plot points and gags revealed that you would rather find out by reading the books in order.

City Watch

Guards! Guards! (4/5) - In my humble opinion, the novels about the city watch are the most consistently excellent subset of the Discworld novels, and well worth reading in order. This is the first, and introduces Vimes, an interesting character destined for great things. This book is also a great introduction to Pratchett's humor; where most fantasy novels would give us impressive, glittering beasts with no grounding in physics, in Guards! Guards! we first meet "real" dragons, the swamp dragons: noisy, gurgling creatures capable of eating anything flammable and producing flame via worrying chemical reactions in their complex, gurgling digestive tracts. Unfortunately this also endows them with an unnerving tendency to explode messily when startled. The "noble dragon," by comparison, summoned by magic, seems rather unreal -- how could a creature that heavy actually fly around? But that is the point: the city watch books are the least magical of the Discworld novels, and this means they are not as outrageously funny as some of the others, but they are the most grounded and convincing satires about this world. We meet Lady Sybil, who will be the great woman behind Vimes, helping him to become a great man, and Carrot, a human raised by dwarves who is an innocent abroad, without prejudices, and an oddly heroic born leader. All together it is quite a mismatched crew, but somehow it all works, and watching the whole crew lurch to life is entrancing.

Men at Arms (3/5) - A disgruntled aristocrat steals a mysterious weapon (a rifle) from the assasin's guild and inflicts a reign of terror on Ankh-Morpork as he becomes a sniper. Features more of Carrot; Carrot and Angua get together. The minor characters (Nobby, Detritus, etc.) are also featured extensively. This Discworld novel has some funny and twisted material on the Clown's guild and the city's gargoyles. It is not quite as tight as the others, and a bit too much of a morality play on firearms, so it gets demoted slightly, but it will be essential if you have become hooked on the City Watch stories.

Feet of Clay (4/5) - Someone is poisoning the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and Vimes must solve the mystery. This is the basic plot of Feet of Clay, and it is a serviceable plot; it gives this Discworld book more structure than many of them, ensuring that there is enough of a story to support all the digressions and subplots. These digressions, along with Pratchett's good use of the minor City Watch characters, are the tidbits that make this Discworld book so much fun. I enjoyed especially the College of Heraldry and the bad jokes and Latin puns found on the heraldic devices. This is the kind of comic detail that is hard work, but really fleshes out Pratchett's world. We meet Cheery Littlebottom, a dwarf who joins the city watch and is apprenticed to Angua and whose experience in alchemy makes her a natural as a kind of forensic crime-scene investigator, and we experience some of the details of life in the Patrician's castle. We also meet the golems of Discworld, and face the interesting moral dilemmas inherent in a labor uprising and civil rights movement among beings that are essentially animated pottery.

Jingo (4/5) - A mysterious island appearing in the sea is claimed by both Ankh-Morpork and Al-Khali, capital of Klatch. Features an assasination, investigation by Carrot and Angua, a really annoying Palm Pilot, and a parody of Leonardo da Vinci. Makes good use of the minor Watch characters like Nobby, and includes a a lot of silliness blended with deft touches of anti-war sentiment (this could easily have become heavy-handed and unpleasant to wade through). On the down side, there are too many simultaneous plot lines, and it will not work well if you haven't read at least one or two of the other books in this sequence.

The Fifth Elephant (4/5) - Vimes is now at the pinnacle of his career, and is sent by the Patrician to the city of Bonk in Uberwald as Ambassador Vimes, Duke of Ankh-Morpork. This book goes deeper into dwarf culture, and we learn more about the importance of baked goods and why the Dwarf Bread Museum is so fascinating to Carrot. There is also a fair dose of satirical politics to be found here: just like America needs oil, Ankh-Morpork needs fat, and the finest fat, mostly free of BCBs (burnt crunchy bits) comes from the deep fat mines in Bonk (pronounced "bee-yonk"). We also get to learn more about the Igors and Angua's strange, strange family. The down side to this book: as in Night Watch, Vimes is pushed and pulled madly by plot elements all around him, but we never really see him stretched.

Night Watch (3/5) - While his wife is in labor, Vimes accidentally goes back in time while chasing an arch-criminal and meets his younger self, taking on the role of an unsung hero of one of the revolutions in Ankh-Morpork. We meet a young Patrician and Nobby. The Monks of Time make cameos, but are under-used. This book is more serious than the usual Discworld novel and contains a lot of meditation on the nature of duty, responsibility, and heroism. It would seem that a whole book going deep into Vimes' past and psychology would be interesting, but I agree with one of the reviewers on Amazon; if you already know Vimes, you'll find that he never really surprises you in this book. I'd give it four stars if it were either funnier _or_ a better serious novel. As in a lot of Pratchett, many scenes in this story cry out for a stronger sense of place and evocative detail; there's too much telling and not enough showing. It wouldn't make a good introduction to Discworld; for that, try The Truth.

Thud (5/5) - It's open war between the dwarves and the trolls. This is another City Watch book and features Vimes heavily. It is ultimately about the futility of violence, but it gets to that truth the hard way, without triteness. By the end of the book both the trolls and the dwarves are interesting, sympathetic characters and we've come to get intriguing glimpses of their history, culture, and religion.

Monstrous Regiment: this one feels a bit like a Night Watch book, and Vimes and Angua appear, but their presence is extremely peripheral to the story, so I'm filing this not as a Night Watch book but under "Miscellaneous," below.

Witches

Equal Rites (3/5) - This an early, shorter Discworld novel (number 3), but it is notably better than Sourcery (number 5), which has a similar plot. As a baby, young Eskarina, the 8th "son" of an 8th son, is given a staff and power by a dying wizard who discovers, too late, that she is actually a daughter. Granny Weatherwax takes the girl under her wing as an apprentice witch, but it eventually becomes clear that young Eskarina must learn wizardry to control her powers. Granny's scenes are the best parts of this book: she seems to be Pratchett's earliest, best-developed, and favorite witch. Eskarina's dialogs with adults she meets along the journey are very funny, but we don't get to see her character develop very well. Pratchett's puns are in fine form in this book. The story's point, which seems to be about the separate-but-equal nature of witch and wizard magic, becomes confused and diluted; the sexist wizards, who are openly contemptuous of the idea of a female wizard, are never really shown up, and although Granny muses repeatedly about her distaste for wizard magic, she eventually winds up in a wizard's duel with Archchancellor Cutangle of Unseen University in which she matches him spell-for-spell. Is a witch really a wizard with extra psychic powers and practical skills in herbalism, "headology," and the good sense to know when to use psychology instead of magic? In that case, it is the wizards that are the simplistic, sexist stereotype, and I fail to see the value in fighting sexist stereotypes with different sexist stereotypes. As happens with frustrating frequency in Pratchett's novels, the ending becomes somewhat muddled: Eskarina is largely ignored in favor of scenes between Granny and Cutangle, and as the book winds up, she has yet to learn to read her first wizard spell, and a potentially interesting character, the powerful young wizard, Simon, is somewhat wasted as the story ends, like Sourcery, in a random spectacle of excess magic.

Wyrd Systers (4/5) - Plays off Shakespeare's play Macbeth. Since I read these hopelessly out-of-order, it is nice to go back and figure out just how the former Jester became King and Magrat his (eventual) queen. The old King Verrence is murdered, but his ghost gets to hang around and haunt the castle, and his son is spirited away to join a troupe of roving actors and a dwarf playwright. This one moves well and finishes well (finishing well is kind of unusual for a Discworld novel), there are quite a few great puns, and we get to know the three witches better. It is up-to-the-eyeballs in Shakespearean references, avoids being too pat, and ranks as one of Pratchett's best efforts.

Witches Abroad (4/5) - This is the most character-centered of the Witch books, and one of the funniest: I'd say it does not quite have the same quality of storytelling as Wyrd Sisters and Maskerade, but makes up for it with the increased depth of the witch characters. When fairy godmother Desiderata dies, she leaves her magic wand to Magrat Garlick, the young "wet hen" of the witch trio Weatherwax, Ogg, and Garlick. For the first 200 pages or so, this book is an enjoyable if meandering travelogue, as the witches fly, walk, and ride across the disc on their way to the city of Genua, unintentionally blundering into, and rewriting, various fairy tales along the way. Then the plot kicks into higher gear, and for the next 150 pages or so we're in Genua trying to save the young Snow White-like Princess Emberella from her fate, to marry the prince Duc. We're fighting against the tide of storyhood itself, orchestrated by the mysterious Lilith, and opposed by voodoo priestess Mrs. Gogol and the mysterious zombie Saturday. The cast is a strange group, but don't worry; other than the witches, most of them don't matter very much in the resolution of the plot, which happens quickly and without much in the way of suspense. The theme of this novel is storytelling itself and the way in which stories, like history, repeat themselves and draw us along after them. The book is rounded out with the dwarf Casanunda, cajun food, and banana daiquiris, but the high points are, very simply, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and... not Magrat, who comes off a bit flat by comparison to the other two, but the tomcat Greebo, who gets some of the funniest scenes when he takes on human form.

Maskerade (4/5) - This Discworld novel plays off the play Phantom of the Opera. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg set off to Ankh-Morpork to find out why they have not received royalties due Nanny for her best-selling cookbook of naughty erotic and aphrodisiac delicacies, and to check up on Agnes Nitt, who has gone to seek her fortune and is singing in the background for a young airheaded opera starlet who looks good in a sequined costume, in a sort of Milli-Vanilli scenario. She has not yet joined the coven, but has found she doesn't seem to fit in anywhere else; her alter-ego, Perdita, is also not yet developed into the alternate personality it becomes in later books. This one is quite funny, and the plot moves along well. There's a pseudo-Italian imposter tenor, Greebo makes a hilarious appearance in human form, and we get to experience a lot of Granny, my favorite witch character. It loses a star only because it dissipates some of its energy on one too many minor characters and subplots.

Lords and Ladies (3/5) - This Discworld novel, part of the Witches subset, plays off of Shakesepare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lancre is invaded by elves, and the only good elf is a dead elf. (In other words, they are uninteresting, unconvincing characters). This book features Magrat and Nanny Ogg; Nanny is very funny in this one. The elves show up too late in the story, and the subplots tend to derail the action. The wizards show up in Lancre along with the Librarian (in orangutan form). The dwarf Casanunda has a candlelight dinner with Nanny Ogg and the Arch-chancellor has a heart-to-heart talk with Granny Weatherwax: these parts are very funny, but they can't make the whole book work well. Still, it is part of the Witches sequence, and these, along with the City Watch sequence, are some of the better Discworld books, and Pratchett should get credit for bringing in the wizards, who work better as minor characters than they do as the protagonists of the Rincewind books.

Carpe Jugulum (4/5) - This one is much funnier than Lords and Ladies, and we also get some Igors! The vampires are done well; these are modern vampires ("vampyres,") and there is a reason they tend to resemble Marilyn Manson wannabees. The pixies are great, the young priest is great, and the pop-horror and pop-horror-parody references come thick and fast. Granny Weatherwax features in this one and saves the day as usual, but it isn't quite clear exactly how (she has a talent for "borrowing" in which she can leave her body and take over animals, but in this case she apparently puts a bit of herself into a number of different people; this is a bit too "magical" for my taste, and seems to violate the spirit of Discworld, where magic is real, but has specific limits and constraints). If you don't care about consistency, though, this is not a bad choice.

Death

Mort (4/5) - This is the story of Death and his young sidekick, Mort. There are lots of nice details about life in Ankh-Morpork as well as various hinterlands. The coming-of-age aspect is nicely done, with Mort proceeding from an inept farmhand to become Death's apprentice and eventually his rival. Like Pratchett's best Discworld novels, there is a light touch of serious philosophical inquiry here about the nature of reality and just what would happen if you really could change history. When Death walks off the job, to wander Ankh-Morpork drinking top-shelf liquor and working as a short-order cook, the results are hilarious. The story is somewhat comparable to Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse, but Anthony suffers by comparison for his lack of real world-building and his insufferable seriousness. The side characters here are great, and include Death's daughter, and his servant Albert, who turns out to be of more importance than he seems. As is unfortunately typical in Discworld books, the ending is a mad scramble to tie up loose ends, but this is still one of the better Discworld novels.

Reaper Man (3/5) - This Discworld novel, while decent, is a disappointment compared to the much more successful Mort. This one gives us a less engaging Death, and an unrelentingly grim world view. There is some of Pratchett's usual cleverness (Death winds up working as a farmhand; he's an expert with a scythe and very productive, even though he insists on cutting the grain one stem at a time), but the wizards, thrown in for comic relief in an unsuccessful subplot involving the secret life cycle of shopping malls, aren't all that funny in this one, and the ancient wizard Windle Poons, who spends most of the book undead, is more disturbing than humorous.

Soul Music (3/5) - This novel introduces us to Susan, death's granddaughter, and thus can be considered a followup to Mort. The plot is, by now, predictable; Death has walked off the job again, and meets strange people, goes on a drinking spree, etc. This time sixteen-year-old Susan must take his place. Strangely, the book's cover shows a hooded female figure, with prominent breasts and hips, carrying a scythe and wearing a kind of grim reaper backless evening gown, although the book describes Susan's death costume as much more practical, like Susan herself. We learn about Susan's early days in a girls' school, but there isn't much depth; we find out more about Death's human assistant, Albert. We meet the raven, who features prominently in Hogfather. The wizards show up, and we see the first mention of the as-yet-unnamed computer, Hex. The other half of the story is a moderately funny parody of rock and roll music, with a Buddy Holly-like figure. The story of "the Band with Rocks In" is funny, yet ends weakly; Pratchett again relies on a wave of his magic wand to tidy up loose ends and change reality instead of working out a coherent and satisfying conclusion to the story. The reader winds up with the impression that Pratchett had a couple of scenes in mind he wanted to write to round out the story, such as one in which Death roars across the Disc on an enormous motorcycle, but could not be bothered to make them integral to the plot, so he just threw them in. Mort gives Death much more personality, and The Truth does for the newspaper industry what this book should have done for the music industry; I recommend those instead.

Hogfather (2/5) - An incoherent mess. When a crazed asassin is hired by the Auditors to bring down the Hogfather, the reduction in overall belief allows new gods to pop into being as quickly as they are thought up: the "oh god" (the god of hangovers), the god of indigestion, a sock-eating fairy, and a miscellany of vicious childhood fears all come to life. Death has to take on the Hogfather's job so that people will keep believing in him. This setup has humor potential -- the pagan roots of Christmas could have made for an interesting subject -- but this book comes off as entirely too dark and mean; it plays at presenting a real philosophy, but this is really just a kind of cover or excuse glued on to a wretched excess of weak storytelling and bad editing. The humor features enemas, urinating pigs, vomiting gods, horrifying gluttony, a deranged crow constantly on the hunt for eyeballs to eat, and is largely just distasteful, a kind of Grand Guignol of snow, holly and mistletoe. Teatime is a vicious sociopath. Susan, Death's granddaughter, plays a major role here, and she's a great character, but not likable enough to make the whole book enjoyable. Worst of all, the Hogfather himself doesn't ever actually make an appearance as himself, but only as a sort of mythological object; we never do find out quite what happened to him and how how the army of mind-controlled children actually brought him down. Instead of this much-needed basic storytelling and characterization we get pliers-wielding tooth fairies and developmentally disabled thieves. The effect is rather like the trick played on the diners at a fine restaurant: instead of the delicacies on the menu, they get boiled shoe leather in mud sauce, but like the average reviewer on Amazon, the diners seem unable to taste the difference. Pratchett does supply his usual quota of great puns, and there _are_ funny moments in this book, but speaking as someone who is more cynical about Christmas than just about anyone I know: Pratchett must _truly_ despise the holiday to give us this steaming pile of... um, holiday cheer.

Thief of Time (5/5) - This is partly a Death story, and brings in Susan, Death's granddaughter, but it can stand alone; it is, in part, a great spoof on western society's fascination with Tibet and Buddhism, and it is quite funny. This is probably my single favorite Pratchett book. Jeremy Clockson is an obsessive-compulsive clockmaker who has to stay on his medication or his mind goes a little bit off the rails. He is commissioned to build a clock, and not just any clock, but the most accurate clock ever devised. He is even sent an Igor to help him. Meanwhile, the monk Lu-Tze has taken on an apprentice from the thieves' guild. Unlike a lot of the Pratchett books, in this one the various plots remain coherent (this is quite a challenge given how silly some of the storylines become), and the ending actually brings it all together (and gives new meaning to the phrase "death by chocolate").

Rincewind

The Color of Magic (1/5) - The first Discworld book; after having read a dozen of the later books, I borrowed it from the library and read it for curiosity's sake. Although Pratchett gets high marks for imagination, this one makes me really appreciate how far Pratchett's writing has come. Although a lot of the typical Discworld elements are here, most of them fall flat. It is broken into chapters, more like distinct short stories, and they vary wildly also. (Perhaps this is why Pratchett now does not use chapter breaks in his later books?) The first story introduces Rincewind, Twoflower, and life in Ankh-Morpork, and starts off the book fairly well. By the third we are stuck in a very muddled, uninteresting story involving dragons, and the language veers wildly back and forth between the Pratchett we've come to know and love, and badly cliched serious fantasy. Pratchett doesn't seem to know which way to turn to get through this one. The fourth segment redeems itself slightly but ends in a cliffhanger. Get these from the library if you're curious; they aren't worth buying. If you can get through this without grinding your teeth, you're a tougher reader than I am (or you've just got a tin ear for bad dialog).

The Light Fantastic (3/5) - The plot continues unbroken from the first book, but Pratchett's style has settled down dramatically into something approximating its current form. This one is not episodic but a single story; it moves well, it is fairly funny, and the main plot line involves the Discworld's arrival at a giant, menacing red star, the spell stuck in Rincewind's head, the gender of A'Tuin, the great turtle, and the reading of the Octavo, the Discworld's most powerful magical book. We visit Death; we meet Cohen the Barbarian. At this point I'm fed up with the Luggage; Pratchett's insistence on trying to make an animated trunk funny and menacing just bores me. The story concludes in a satisfying way, and we find out why pretty much the whole gang of wizards from Unseen University, introduced in the first book, is replaced by a new gang of wizards in the later books. While this one is decent, it is a continuation of the wretched first book, and I can't recommend reading the whole sequence at all; you could get a feel for the Rincewind books by reading just this one and Interesting Times.

Sourcery (2.5/5) - The back cover makes it sound like this is a sequel to The Color of Magic ("when last seen... Rincewind had fallen off the edge of the world"), but it instead appears to follow The Light Fantastic. We've got the luggage again, the Librarian, a magic hat, and a storyline involving a "sourceror" (a sort of super-wizard of the sort long gone from the disc). There are some moderately funny barbarian characters Conina (daughter of Cohen the Barbarian), and Nijel (a young boy who has apparently mail ordered a book on how to become a barbarian hero), but they are somewhat under-used. There are some alternate-universe science fiction cliches; the funniest involves the potential infinite regress of carrying a Djinn's magic lamp into the magic lamp itself; if you like Escher, it won't be anything new to you. A lot of the action takes place in Klatch, and there are lots of silly references to the Rubaiyat, 1001 Arabian Nights, flying carpets, etc. I'd describe this as a perfectly adequate but completely lackluster Discworld book, with little in it to stick in the mind; in particular, there's very little character-building, world-building digression, or significant detail. It reads as if it was written from an outline, and barely fleshed out. In a few months, I doubt if I'll be able to remember much about it. Pratchett fails to achieve any real dramatic tension, partly because there are no clear limits to the Sourceror's power; he's able to easily dispatch the Disc gods and bring on the apocralypse (yes, I spelled that right; in the Discworld, the apocalypse is probably apocryphal). In typical Rincewind fashion we mostly try to avoid danger until the Sourceror's storyline plays itself out. This book does end having left Rincewind in an interesting state, though: he's trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions, having (rather uncharacteristically) thrown himself into grave danger in order to save the young Sourceror. The luggage goes with him, thank God; now, if only it would stay there. It's a shame that when we finally see Rincewind do something that is interestingly out-of-character, or perhaps something that reveals a bit of development of his character, the book is ending.

Eric (3/5) - This is a very short book: about 200 pages in length, and typeset with wide leading. A play on Faust, it also takes on the sacking of Troy, ancient Aztecs, and hell itself. It is best thought of as a brief travelogue of the Discworld, bouncing through space and time from the creation of the universe to its end. Eric, an incompetent teenage demonologist, has inadvertently and for no very good reason summoned Rincewind back from the Dungeon Dimensions instead of the demon from hell that he hoped for. Rincewind has somehow acquired the ability to travel through time and space with a snap of his fingers. The abominable Luggage continues to follow him everywhere. That's the setup; the payoff is a moderately funny storyline that ricochets through various places and times quickly enough that the reader is able to avoid boredom. So you won't be bored, and you might even laugh a bit, but because there is so little story or character development, you won't be very deeply entertained. I finished it in about ninety minutes -- at $6.99 for the paperback, that's almost eight cents a minute. You can make long distance phone calls for less than that. Call it Pratchett Lite, and look for something a little more filling; on the other hand, if you are looking for a really quick and shallow introduction to Discworld, something you can read in the bathtub without even getting pruney, to decide if you can stand Pratchett's style and want to read more of it, this wouldn't be a bad choice.

Interesting Times (4/5) - A spoof on China, the Great Wall, and what was really going on with all those terra-cotta soldiers. I like Rincewind's talent for languages; given that Chinese is a tonal language, it takes him three or four tries to correctly pronounce each new word he learns. The story includes Cohen the Barbarian, and the various attempts to teach the Silver Horde to be civilized are very funny, if not exactly the stuff of serious fiction. I read this out of order, and was not familiar with Twoflower from previous books so some of the characters are not familiar; if you're going to read it, it would help to have read at least The Light Fantastic first (but see my previous comments above about the entire Rincewind sequence).

The Last Continent (3/5) - I have two reviews.

This is a somewhat longer review that I wrote for Amazon; keep in mind that this was the first Discworld (and Pratchett) book that I read.

I decided to give Terry Pratchett a shot after reading A.S. Byatt's comments in the New York Times on Harry Potter; she raves about Pratchett. I'm a long-time science fiction and fantasy reader. I had just finished the first 5 Harry Potter books along with my son, and understood what Byatt was talking about when she criticized the series: in my not-very-humble opinion, the Potter books are far too tame, and fail to give that impression of a true and untamed world beyond the boundaries of the book.

I read The Last Continent, and I was amused: Pratchett's writing is very witty, his sentences dynamic, and he has an eye for the improbable and ludicrous. His world is close enough to our world for just about everything to stand as good satire, and he basks in nearly, but not quite, bringing in obvious modern cultural references directly, such as nods to the film "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." His mockery of academia is dead-on. Australian culture ("not really Australia," as the book jacket informs us) gets skewered and he mocks everything from the invention of Marmite to meat pies served with mushy peas and tomato sauce to how the platypus really came to be. (It was, as it appears, designed by committee). Discword seems to really be a very rich place in which just about anything can happen, and does... but this makes it also seems to lack rules, and a world in which anything can happen without any internal consistency or reason starts to feel a little uninteresting, as if it were more a playground for the author than designed for the reader, and when there is no real risk and challenge to the characters, we don't care much about them.

In particular, Pratchett introduces a half-dozen characters at once, and they are insufficiently differentiated. We're apparently supposed to know all about them from earlier books, but yet in general it isn't considered necessary to read the Discworld books in order. That's sloppy. There is really only a very vague sense of plot. Two parallel stories meet up at the end, but both stories individually just kind of bumble along from one bizarre happening to another without much of a sense of urgency. It seems unbelievable given the ridiculous things happening all around us, but the story becomes dull. There are a lot of references to Australian aboriginal culture and rock drawings and creation myths, but it never quite gels. I really like the games Pratchett plays with time: the "last continent" is many thousands of years old, but only showed up a few minutes ago. There's a god of evolution, who is busy cranking out new creations at a dizzying rate. The world spins around the characters and changes paragraph by paragraph and it is all very funny, and suggestive of a larger imaginative structure where the reader can feel at home, but ultimately it seems to collapse like an imploding cave and we're left back where we started without much to show for the trip.

Douglas Adams used this same form in his early books, and did it better. This book reads like the later Adams book "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish," in which the narrator admits that "there was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler's mind."

I'm giving Pratchett another chance, though; I'm now reading Good Omens, to see if working with a coauthor gives his storytelling a little bit of much-needed discipline. If that goes well, I'll give the Discworld books another shot... there are a lot more of them to choose from!

The Last Continent (2/5) - (written after having read most of the rest of the Discworld novels).

This was the first Pratchett book I read, and my original review is on Amazon; I still stand by it, but have revised my rating downward after reading the rest of the Discworld novels. It is funny in parts and full of pop-culture references, but does not hold together as a story. There isn't much plot, or, rather, there is far too much to pay attention to. Rincewind is not a character in this book so much as an excuse to roam around Australia; the wizards of Unseen University show up, but if you don't already know them, or even if you do, you'll find their characters quite poorly differentiated. Interesting Times and The Light Fantastic are better Rincewind novels, but I would recommend spending your valuable free time reading the the City Watch or Witches Discworld novels instead.

Unseen Academicals (4/5) fits reasonably well in the Rincewind sequence because it takes place largely in the environs of Unseen University, although Rincewind himself has very few speaking lines. The Patrician is featured prominently. Even though the book is, on the surface, about football (soccer), a subject I have less than no interest in, I enjoyed it quite a bit. As the back cover blurb says, "The thing about football - the most important thing about football - is that it is never just about football." That's your clue that you don't need to know anything about soccer to enjoy the book, because it is mostly about the engaging characters and subplots. And also, pies. I like pies. We even get a new race from Ɯberwald, and I hope we will be able to read more about the Orcs in future books.

Miscellaneous

Pyramids (2/5) - A young prince from the kingdom of Djelibeybi (yes, Doctor Who fans, "jelly-baby") is sent off to Ankh-Morpork for training at the guild of Assassins. His final exam is vividly imagined and well-told. But just after graduation his father the eccentric pharaoh of the realm, considered a god, dies, and young Teppic must return to ascend to the throne. His father's ghost gets to hang around and watch himself get mummified, and Djelibeybi begins building its biggest pyramid yet. In this book Pratchett throws in an awful lot of funny detail in: we get a send-up of Zeno and his paradox, a mockery of the whole notion of "pyramid power" (subject of many silly pseudo-science books that I remember from my childhood), and a nasty but mathematically inclined camel... in other words, a whole lot of bits and pieces with "Laugh! This is funny!" stamped on them... but they aren't, and I didn't. Teppic is never developed further as a character; although as the new pharaoh himself, he finds his orders constantly reinterpreted by his high priest. This makes for good satire of Egyptian government but results in a situation where nothing Teppic says or does really seems to matter. Teppic's love interest, Ptraci, is even less interesting; she is described as a voluptuous handmaiden schooled in the exotic arts of love, and scented with intoxicating perfumes. But rather than give her anything interesting to say or do, Pratchett simply takes her off-stage for most of the book, and focuses instead on nerdy quantum instabilities, reanimated mummies, a parody of the Trojan Wars, the Sphinx, the internal squabbles of the high priests, a bevy of bizarre gods, and a mishmash of other distracting details. Erotica is not Pratchett's style, and I wasn't expecting a real X-rated Kama Sutra send-up, but we don't get even a budding romance or a love-hate relationship; instead, we get a disappointing plot twist that effectively neuters the characters. Although I admire some of Pratchett's big ideas in this book about Egyptian culture's obsession with death and time, and found the story of Teppic's assassin's guild examination to be fun reading, the book ultimately becomes quite dull and hard to finish. This is a shame, because there is a the seed of a very good Discworld novel about Teppic the Reluctant Assassin buried in here, and that would have been much more fun to read. For a far better Discworld standalone, read The Truth instead, or Thief of Time, or Going Postal, or even Moving Pictures. This one is only for those going for the full series. There are thirty Discworld novels, almost all them better than this one, so there are a lot of better novels to choose from!

Moving Pictures (3/5) - This Discworld novel is a spoof of the early days of Hollywood, with lots and lots of movie references. Gaspode the talking dog, who was introduced here, is a big asset to the book. The story is loosely tied to the Rincewind stories via the wizards, and to the City Watch stories via "cut me own throat" Dibbler, but it is primarily a standalone, and not one of the better ones: when the most interesting character is a dog, you know something is not quite right. If you are a newcomer to the Discworld novels, I recommend starting with the standalone novel The Truth instead, although this one is worth going back to, when you have gotten through one or two of the sequences.

Small Gods (4/5) - This is one of the more dense, dry, and philosophical Discworld books; aside from various cultural and historical references, and a few lighter characters, the actual story is quite somber and serious. (I can hardly believe I wrote that; after all, we're talking about the Discworld!) Brother Brutha, a young novice of the Church of Om, one day hears a strange voice in his head: it is the voice of the Great God Om. There are, however, a few complications. No one else can hear the voice, and it seems to be emanating from a rather battered old tortoise. Brutha is, in fact, the last person to maintain an abiding faith in Om; the rest of the Church seems to worship -- and fear -- something else: the Church itself, which bears considerable resemblance to the church of the medieval Inquisition, and which has corrupted the teachings of Om until they are unrecognizable, even to Om himself. With only one believer left, Om has been reduced to the status of Small God: if he loses his last believer, he'll be little more than a hungry ghost in the desert. He needs a few more faithful, and fast: a hungry eagle is looking to drop him onto a rock and eat him for lunch. Om is really stuck between a rock and a hard place. But Brutha is an unlikely prophet: a bumbling idiot-savant, whose only real talent is a photographic memory, but he is being groomed by the evil Inquisitor Vorbis to assist in the invasion of neighboring Ephebe, which looks suspiciously like ancient Greece, complete with Library of Alexandria (well, technically, that was in Egypt, but you get the idea). This book raises serious questions about the difference between faith and religion, and for the most part does a good job answering them with a storyline that is not syrupy or fluffy. And for all its seriousness, this is still a Discworld book: we get a quick glimpse of Lu-Tze, who is hanging around in the background, quietly altering history. Death, the only character who seems to show up in every single Discworld novel, has his work cut out for him in this one. We also meet the suspiciously familiar Cut-Me-Own_Hand-Off Dhblah, "purveyor of suspiciously new holy relics, suspiciously old rancid sweet-meats on a stick, gritty figs and long-past-the-sell-by dates." So Small Gods is a mixed bag: it is light on the humor and heavy on the philosophy, but by the end we start to feel real empathy with the characters, even the twisted Vorbis. That's all-too-rare in the Discworld series, and welcome.

The Truth (5/5) - This book is somewhat tied to the City Watch sequence, but can easily stand alone; I recommend it highly, and it would be an excellent introduction to the Discworld books. This is the story of the founding of a tabloid newspaper in Ankh-Morpork, and its inevitable rivals. There are very engaging characters and funny sidekicks including a vampire named Otto, who joins the crew as a photographer but has an unfortunate tendency to crumble into dust when exposed to bright flashes of light, and some really inept bad guys. Gaspode the dog shows up, as do members of the City Watch. The satire of tabloid journalism is wonderful, as is the clash between William de Worde's idealism and his need to make money.

Monstrous Regiment (3/5) - In far-off Borogravia, the kingdom is at war. The army has used up its supply of male cannon fodder, and so it is up to the girls to protect the motherland. Our hero(ine) Polly joins up, and winds up in a regiment containing a vampire, an Igor, and a troll, and with several other members who are, predictably, not quite what they seem. Vimes, Angua, Otto, and William de Worde make brief cameo appearances, and so the story makes a little bit more sense if you've read The Truth and The Fifth Elephant, although this is not really a requirement, and the book is is best thought of as a standalone. There is a great critique of militarism and military culture buried in here, and Borogravian society is a great send-up of theocracy in which the god Nuggan is suffocating his followers in endless new commandments about things to avoid. Then there's the mysterous and creepy Duchess, the matriarch of Borogravian society and perhaps a send-up of Queen Victoria; the book gets an extra half-point for some unexpected genuine spookiness. Reviewers are calling this Pratchett's best book to date. I'm not sure I agree, but I acknowledge that over his last few books he has become a satirist to take seriously, if that makes any sense. His later work has some serious depth to it, but this yields mixed results, since he is a writer whose appeal comes largely from his wordplay and humor; I'm not sure he can quite pull off both Monty Python and Mark Twain at the same time, and he risks succeeding at neither. As is usual in his books, the final plot twists and surprises are not very interesting by the time we get to them.

Going Postal (4/5) - This is another standalone, and compares favorably to The Truth. The story revolves around a deal offered by the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, to conflicted con man Moist von Lipwig. Lipwig is to be hanged, but is offered a reprieve if he will take over Ankh-Morpork's decrepit and abandoned Post Office, which is filled with millions of undelivered letters. Lipwig agrees -- sort of -- and eventually brings the postal service back to life, and also fights a conspiracy among the owners of the Clacks Grand Trunk (a set of semaphore towers used for high-speed communication and representing the technology upheaval brought about by the invention of the telegraph, or a primitive internet). This is not one of the more serious or more plot-heavy books, but it features some great characters: a pin-collecting post office employee, a number of golems, and Ms. Dearheart. It also features golems, so I would recommend reading this one after Feet of Clay. I found the story a little bit weak, with a touch too much Deus ex Machina rather than good old problem-solving, but it moves quickly and Lipwig is an appealingly honest criminal.

Making Money (4/5) - I called Going Postal a standalone in my original review, but since Making Money follows the further adventures of Moist von Lipwig, it definitely should be read after Going Postal. The Wikipedia article on Discworld has broken out a separate Moist von Lipwig category under "Storylines," but I'll keep it under "Miscellaneous" for now, mainly because I'm simply too lazy busy. (Tell you what -- if and/or when the rumored third MvL book Raising Taxes comes out, I'll break it into a separate sequence when I review that one). Anyway, there are no great surprises here. I was entertained. There is an analog liquid-based computer. There is an Igor. (How can you go wrong with an Igor?) This is next-to-top-shelf Discworld -- very much worth reading, but not the best introduction and not one of the very finest.

See Part 3 for Lists...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Paul's Nearly Complete Guide to Discworld, Part One

Introduction (Added May 2010, Updated January 2011)

The last Discworld novel, as of this writing is Unseen Academicals. By my reckoning, there are now 32 Discworld novels on the "main sequence."

I just want to take a moment and say that this is a really impressive achievement. They aren't all terrific, but most of them fall somewhere in the range from above average to excellent. Some of them hold up very well to re-reading. Some have unexpected depths. Pratchett has developed considerable skill as a storyteller over the years, and while his work is often very humorous, he will ultimately be remembered as a fairly serious satirist. Congratulations, Sir Pratchett!

Thirty-two is the number I got by counting up the "adult" Discworld novels, excluding The Last Hero. We'll be inclusive and include Eric, even though it is so short. (Apparently it is actually supposed to be typeset as Faust Eric, as a joking reference to another famed story about a deal with the devil).Technically, The Last Hero is a short (40,000 word) illustrated novel in the Rincewind sequence. I had not (and still have not) read it.

When I wrote the bulk of these reviews, I had not realized that the young adult novels The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and The Wee Free Men are actually set in the Discworld as well (I never found them shelved in bookstores with the others). There are three more now: A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. I have not yet read any of them. I can't promise that I'll get to them anytime soon.

That doesn't include any of the special illustrated books like The Last Hero, the cookbooks, the science book spin-offs, the maps, the quiz books, or the children's books (although my daughter loved Where's My Cow?)

When I originally wrote this guide, I broke the novels down into sequences: City Watch, Witches, Death, Rincewind, and Miscellaneous. With the release of Making Money, Moist von Lipwig probably deserves his own sequence. There are also now two books, The Truth, and Monstrous Regiment that feature the Ankh-Morpork Times, although the reporters now crop up elsewhere.

Wikipedia breaks down the books into "storylines," which can overlap (for example, Mort is both a Death book and a Susan Sto Helit book, per Wikipedia, and Night Watch is listed under both the City Watch storyline and the Monks of Time storyline).

I have chosen to err on the side of fewer sequences, and have put each book into only one sequence, with no overlapping allowed. But this breakdown is quite arbitrary, as the Discworld books actually overlap like crazy, which characters and locales intersecting all over the place, and so any reasonably simple scheme to organize the books is by necessity an over-simplification.

Finally, you may have heard the news that Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimer's disease and so it is, sadly, likely that we are at or nearing the end of the Discworld series. I wish Sir Pratchett the very best and he has my grateful thanks for these wonderfully enjoyable novels.

How I Came to Write this Guide

Over the course of reading these novels, I began to make notes to myself. They started out as notes on my own wiki, mainly just marking off the books so that I wouldn't wind up starting to read the same book twice by accident. I began adding comments and ratings. I started posting reviews on Amazon. Eventually, I had a reasonably coherent set of reviews and ratings of all the Discworld novels.

Advice to First-Time Discworld Readers

I do not recommend reading the Discworld books in chronological order. You can do this, of course, but it would be best if you were familiar with Pratchett's better Discworld books before attempting it. The danger is that some of the earlier books are much different in style and much poorer in quality than the later books. You run the risk of being turned off to the series altogether. In particular, The Colour of Magic is very different than the later books, and makes a poor introduction to Discworld, and does not reflect the quality of Pratchett's later writing. Consider it a rough draft. I recommend it only if you want to see how it all got started.

Although I like to support authors and maintain a personal library by buying books, if you are about to undertake Pratchett, I highly recommend that you start by borrowing them from a friend (if the friend will part with them), or from your local library. You don't want to begin buying the whole series, or even big chunks of it, yet. You won't know which ones you like the most until you have read them. So save your money; Discworld is a big investment, even in paperback. I have read all of them and some of them more than once, but I only own a dozen or so -- the ones I feel are worth re-reading.

I would recommend starting with books from the Miscellaneous sequences below, such as The Truth. After you have read one or two of these books, you should decide if you want to continue. If so, I recommend that you pick one of the sequences of related books, which follow a set of recurring characters.

You might try reading the first recommended book of each sequence to see which one you like more. Women and girls might enjoy reading the Witches sequence first, because they feature three interesting female protagonists and are largely about relationships and the role of girls and women of different ages in society. Men and boys may prefer the City Watch books because they feature Samuel Vimes and various other men (some human, some not, and some indeterminate) as protagonists.

My personal favorite sequence is the City Watch sequence, but you might prefer the Death sequence. I can't highly recommend the Rincewind books as a jumping-off point, but you might want to read them later; see my notes below.

After you pick a sequence, I would recommend reading that sequence in chronological order, finishing all or most of the books in the sequence, before veering cross-wise into another one. This is not required, since most of the books don't truly depend on each other, but if you read them chronologically the developments over time will seem as coherent as possible, which will make it more enjoyable.

Personally, I think I would have gotten the most out of the Discworld books by reading:
  • The Truth (it makes a good introduction to the whole Discworld)
  • The City Watch sequence, at least the ones recommended, in chronological order
  • The Witches sequence, ditto
  • The Death sequence, ditto
After that, it's open season. Maybe you'd like the standalone Small Gods. Maybe you'd like to tackle the Rincewind sequence. Maybe you'll want to grit your teeth and go back and start from the beginning with The Color of Magic, filling in the gaps in chronological order. By this point you will most likely be hooked, and most likely want to read them all, so have fun!

Personally, I wound up reading the Discworld novels, at least for the first time, in somewhat random order, starting with The Lost Continent, and then reading them as they became available through inter-library loan. The series would have made more sense if I had followed at least one or two of the sequences in order.

A Guide to the Sequences

The City Watch

The best ones are Guards! Guards!, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud. Read them in order for maximum coherency.

Consider skipping Men at Arms, which fits in between Guards! Guards! and Feet of Clay. It is not bad, but a little bit disappointing when compared with the others.

Consider skipping Night Watch. it is a longer, heavier, more philosophical novel, and you will not like it unless you like the character Samuel Vimes and want to know more about what makes him tick. For hard-core Vimes fans, though, it is indispensible.

The Witches

The best are Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Maskerade, and Carpe Jugulum. I recommendread reading them in that order.

Technically, Equal Rites was the first witches book and came out before Wyrd Sisters, but it is not as good, so I wouldn't recommend reading it first; it is mostly a standalone, and so reading it in order isn't crucial. Lords and Ladies came out in between Witches Abroad and Maskerade, but it also isn't quite as good as the others. Read these two only if you really love the witches, especially Granny Weatherwax.

Death

Death technically appears as a character in every single Discworld novel, but these are the ones that feature him as a major character.

Read Mort and Thief of Time (in that order). In my opinion, Thief of Time is the best of the Death sequence and also the single best Discworld novel, although it isn't necessarily the best one to read first, because it is pretty weird even for Pratchett. Simply put, it just hits all the right notes -- a bit of fantasy, a bit of science fiction, a bit of slapstick, some bad puns, some philosophy, some danger, some adventure, and some likeable characters, all put together in an energetic style (lots of "showing") that doesn't suffer from excessive talkiness ("telling").

Consider skipping Reaper Man and Soul Music; they aren't quite as good, and suffer in comparison to Mort. If you want to read them all in order, Reaper Man and Soul Music fit in between Mort and Thief of Time.

I highly recommend that you avoid Hogfather since it is one of the worst of the Discworld books, one of the rare occasions where Pratchett's humor just seems joyless, sour, and cynical; reading it is like eating a beautiful cake which has gone rancid. If you want to try it anyway, it fits between Soul Music and Thief of Time.

Rincewind

This portion of my Guide originally started with the phrase "Two words: don't bother." Well, I've moderated my position a little bit since then, but I will still say this about the Rincewind sequence: set your expectations a little lower. Many of the books in this sequence are best thought of as sedimentary rather than metamorphic: they are full of undigested lumps that have not quite fused together. They are occasionally glittery and you could make them into unusual pieces of jewelry, but for the most part they are not gem-quality.

If you are just starting out, the Discworld books, don't start with these. Read the other sequences first. While they are sometimes funny, these books tend to rely more on insults and slapstick, creating funny moments -- humorous scenes and one-liners -- rather than interesting plots and engaging characters. The hero (technically, an anti-hero) of most of these books is the very two-dimensional Rincewind.

Let me give you an analogy: Rincewind and the other wizards of Unseen University are to the City Watch and the Witches as the Three Stooges are to the Marx Brothers. Some people love the Stooges; I'm more of a Marx Brothers fan. Rincewind is a Stooge. He's a bit like Curly: he is always getting pummelled. He has only three important character traits: he's an incredibly incompetent wizard who flunked out of Unseen University and who can't cast even the most elementary spell; he's ridiculously lucky, and always winds up grabbing that hanging branch when he falls off a cliff; and he's an extraordinary coward, who is very good at fleeing from danger. Add a fear of women, a love of starchy food, and a stained, ratty robe, a hat that says "Wizzard," and a pair of running shoes, and you have Rincewind.

Along with Rincewind, these books also focus on the wizards of Unseen University. To me, Unseen University is one of Pratchett's disappointments. U. U. is a funny place, and could have been home to lots of intriguing storytelling involving student wizards learning their craft and playing nasty practical jokes on one another, a sort of darker and more satirical version of Hogwarts, but it isn't; instead, we only really get the to know the senior faculty and administration. U. U. is a parody of institutions of higher learning and the tenure system, and that could be very funny, too, but for the most part it isn't. In the early books these characters are just not very well-developed, and Pratchett seems to have gotten the tone wrong (too dark, too vicious), so he literally kills them all off, and replace them in the later books by a completely new set of wizards who are not quite as keen on literally murdering each other, but who are merely (figuratively this time) backstabbing. And lazy, incompetent, and gluttonous. It is telling that the wizard with the most depth of human character and feeling seems to be the Librarian, who is an orangutan, and all he can say is "ook." When Pratchett tries to delve deep into a wizard's character, the result is like scuba-diving in a wading pool.

With all that said, Interesting Times is actually a pretty funny book, and well worth reading for its send-up of Chinese politics and culture. The wizards only play minor roles, which is a relief; even Rincewind just happens to be the vehicle by which the story gets told, but Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde really steal the show, along with, as they say, a cast of thousands. A lot of funny things happen. But if you're looking for a convincing protagonist and a well-developed story: well, you're reading the wrong sequence of Discworld novels.

I've placed Unseen Academicals in this sequence because it takes place primarily in the environs of Unseen University, and because Rincewind shows up as a minor character, but it could just as well be filed under "Miscellaneous," as the lead characters are entirely new. It is a bit out of place here.

So, my advice is this: read books from the other sequences first. If you enjoyed the cameos the wizards make in those books, try reading Interesting Times. You will be missing a little bit of background on Rincewind's earlier adventures with Twoflower, but this is not critical to your enjoyment of the story.

If you like Interesting Times, then consider digging deeper; you could move on to The Last Continent, which in my opinion is not as good as Interesting Times; you could read Unseen Academicals; you could go back and pick up The Light Fantastic, which also suffers by comparison to the better Discworld books, or you could start through the early books in order... but however you do it, if you want to read all the Rincewind books, you'll eventually have to read... (drum roll...) The Colour of Magic (cue ominous music).

The Colour of Magic is a big pothole on the on-ramp to Discworld. I suggest strongly that no one read it as an introduction to the series: it is very, very uneven in style and quality, and not representative of what Pratchett has achieved later. But if you're a serious fan and want to see how it all started, go right ahead; just remember: you have been warned.

Miscellaneous

The Truth is probably the best book to introduce you to Discworld; it contains some of the city watch characters, but you don't need to be familiar with them to follow the story. Most the "alien" races (vampires, trolls, etc.) make an appearance, and it has a little bit of almost everything that is appealing about Discworld.

The later book Going Postal is also worth reading, and touches (briefly) on some of the characters from The Truth, although it would probably be best to read it after you have learned more about the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, so you might want to save it until you have read at least the first few of the City Watch books especially Feet of Clay, which has quite a bit to do with Vetinari. You should read Making Money after Going Postal, as it follows chronologically. Vetinari is one of my favorite characters and I would love to see a story centered entirely around him, but, alas, this story has yet to be written.

Small Gods shows a more serious and darkly satirical side of the Discworld, and can be read at any point.

Eric is very quick and might make a good very brief introduction to Discworld for the impatient, although if you are that impatient you probably aren't going to make it through thirty or more books anyway.

See Part Two for Reviews of Each Discworld Novel...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The New Unicorn

Last night we received our new copy of The Last Unicorn movie on DVD -- a copy autographed by Peter S. Beagle and personalized "for Veronica Ruth!"

This edition is widescreen, not pan-and-scan. That makes a lot of scenes much more visually appealing. In some scenes there are characters in the frame that I don't remember seeing at all in the pan-and-scan version! The visual noise floor is a little bit better and the colors are more vivid and full. There is still some flickering as frames change in brightness and some unevenness in color -- for example, sometimes the Lady Amalthea's hair seems to change color from frame to frame -- but I suspect these artifacts are present in the original negatives.

The soundtrack, which really gives life to any animated film, is considerably better. There is much more of a stereo image, a better frequency response, and the music cues and the voiceover don't tend to blur together into mush. The "wow" (wobbling pitch) of the pan-and-scan version is reduced, so (for example) Mia Farrow no longer sounds horribly out of key when she sings her soliloquy "Now that I'm a Woman."

Unfortunately, though, it is still evident that much of the music, particularly the America songs, is poorly recorded. In this DVD edition it is crisper, but there is still quite a bit of noticeable wobbling in the guitar, harpsichord, and string sounds, and to a lesser extent in the vocals. In part, I'm hearing the differences between the recording technology the early 1980s and of today, but to my ear the recordings aren't even up to snuff when compared to other recordings from the time. If the original tracks still exist separately, it seems to me there remains an excellent opportunity for a complete remix. Even if the individual tracks are in poor condition, it seems to me that some restoration or re-recording would be possible; after all, even a relatively humble computer-based studio now has the capacity to record new tracks using samples or software synthesizers, apply pitch correction and noise reduction, and mix multitrack recording with audio quality far beyond the wildest dreams of the original producers.

I just read on Wikipedia that apparently the new release runs 4% faster than the original, because of the difference in frame rate between PAL and NTSC. I'm somewhat embarassed to report that I did not notice this difference, even though it must mean that the soundtrack runs slightly faster!

Anyway, despite my nitpicking on technical grounds, this edition is a big improvement, and it is a terrific animated movie. I am very happy that our daughter has a signed copy and that we've been able to help support the author directly. You can still order autographed copies here and I urge you to do so!